Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Rasha

It is often said in the frum world that Judaism encourages questions. One is allowed, even encouraged to ask about religious practices. Of course in practice questions, or rather, questions without pat answers, are rarely tolerated.

Tomorrow night I will be at the Seder, an event the express purpose of which is to encourage children to ask questions. What kind of questions, though, are they supposed to be asking?

The section of the arbeh banim is enlightening on this point. For the purposes of this discussion I will focus on the first two of the four sons, the Chacham and the Rashsa. It is often said that they ask the same question: essentially, “Why are you doing all of this?” The difference is that the Chacham asks because he genuinely wants to know more about the practices, while the Rasha asks merely so that he can make fun of them.

If one looks at the actual text of the questions, however, the difference between the two is not the difference between the seeker of knowledge and the boor seeking to disparage the ritual, between “good” and “bad,” but rather the difference between two different premises. The Chacham asks, “What are the testimonies, decrees, and laws that God has commanded you?” He is starting from the premise that these actions were commanded by God, and is asking for clarification as to why God commanded these things and what, exactly, God has wants him to do. The Rasha asks a similar question, but one with an entirely different premise. He asks: “What is this work to you?” That is, why are you doing these things? What is the purpose? He starts from the premise that there is no apparent reason to be doing these strange things, and asks for justification for these actions.

The Chacham is praised as wise and, according to the commentaries, is taught all of the laws of Pesach through the end of the Seder, the eating of the Korban Pesach. The Rasha is disparaged as “depraved” (Artscroll translation) and we are encouraged to “Knock out his teeth.”

When the frum world claims that people are allowed to question Judaism, what is really meant is that people are allowed to ask for clarification on how to perform rituals, or, say, how to reconcile apparently conflicting passages in the Chumash. This is the question of the Chacham, which is allowed, and in the right context, even praiseworthy. The question of the Rasha, “Why do any of these things in the first place?” ”Why assume that conflicting passages are not really a “difficulty” and can always be reconciled?” is forbidden.

My own experiences have shown me that this is true. I was always a bit of a skeptic and questioned things that didn’t make sense. (I know, I know, we can’t say it doesn’t make sense. Things that I, with my puny brain, didn’t understand.) In seventh and eighth grade this was mostly gedolim stories that I found a bit ridiculous or unlikely. It wasn’t until tenth or eleventh grade, though, that I began to really ask questions. The response at first was attempts to answer each question individually. When my rabbeim noticed a pattern, the Rosh Yeshiva called me into his office and told me that while Judaism allows one to ask questions, and he would arrange for me to speak with people who could answer my questions, I shouldn’t ask about these things in class anymore. It was one thing if I had questions, but why should other bochurim, who would never think of such questions on their own, have to be bothered by mine? It was then arranged for me to meet with various members of the community who were active in kiruv. From them I heard all of the standard apologetics (though I didn’t think of them as such at the time, and even found some of them impressive. Oh well, I was sixteen.) I also heard that I was arrogant to assume that because I couldn’t understand something there was a problem with it; that many great rabonim had also struggled with these questions, were far smarter than I, and had remained great gedolim; versions of Pascal’s Wager; and so on ad nauseum.

Over time I came to identify more and more with the Rasha – not the Eisav version of the Rasha I learned about in kindergarten, the bully who killed people and used force and intimidation to achieve his ends – but the Hagadah version of the Rasha, the son who asks, “Why are we doing these strange things?” without assuming the answer automatically is, “Because God told us to.” The Rasha in many stories from the time of the Haskalah, in which the Enlightened intellectual would ask the Rov or Rebba a logical question about Judaism or a Jewish religious practice. The Rebba invariably gives a clever, glib answer that makes the maskil look like a fool but doesn’t really answer the question. The Chassidim or talmidim all laugh at the poor fool who thinks he knows better than the mesorah, and we move on, our crisis of faith averted. More and more, I found myself identifying with the maskil in these stories rather than with the Rov or the talmidim.

Eventually this became part of my self identity. I was the guy who questioned what everyone around me took for granted. I was the guy who engaged in heated debates with my rabbeim, my parents, my fellow bais medrish bochrim. I was the misfit, the one who thought he was right while everyone around me was convinced I was wrong. Oh, I knew that there were others out there who agreed with me. All those “evil” scientists, for instance. But these were not people I had ever met or spoken to.

Then, six or seven months ago, I discovered blogs. ( I don’t know why it took so long. I’ve been online for ten years.) Here were intelligent, articulate, like-minded people from backgrounds similar to mine. I was no longer unique.

I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a blog for a while now. I’ve always liked to write. (In high school, it was my only available form of recreation.) A blog opens the possibility that someone will actually read what I write. The possibility of readers will hopefully also motivate me to write down a lot of things that I’ve been meaning to for years but just never got around to doing.

Dear potential readers, thank you in advance for the motivation, and please, play nice.


  1. I was you in high school. They took away my saludatorian spot because I would no longer daven in the morning and my Judaic studies teachers questioned my "commitment to yiddishkeit." My favorite rabbi, who had more patience for my questioning nature gave me a gift of mussar books at graduation, something he did for no one else, I assume, in hopes it would help me stay "on the derech." Teachers warned my parents that if I went to a secular school, I would end up not frum and they should send me to Stern College (YU for women). I guess they were right to be worried. By twenty I left altogether. By twenty-two a married a guy just like me, and ex-OJ.

    My question to you is, from what I can tell, you still lead a frum lifestyle. What kept you there? Are still some religious beliefs that remain intact for you that keep you hanging on? Is it committment to family? A love of the lifestyle?

  2. Why am I still practicly frum? A few reasons, but the most significant one is that it never realisticaly occured to me not to be. Being the socially inept person that I am, making it in a different world would have been extremely difficult.

  3. (this comment is a tad...late)

    So this is who you are. Funny, I only began asking questions much, much later in life.
    As a child, I loved Orthodox Judaism, and aspired to it even though my family wasn't strictly Orthodox in practice.

    Orthodoxy sounded true, felt right, and my happiest childhood memories revolve around the ritual observances, Shabbat and chagim.

    It is only in the autumn of my life that I am questioning, mainly Rabbinic Judaism, but also Torah mi-Sinai. But I still lead a frum life, because of its beauty, and its mayain olam habah aspects.

    I guess that when we die, we will find out the truth. Meanwhile, we should live the holiest life we can (whatever that means).

  4. I am so late to get here, but am really glad to have come. I feel like I'm in very like-minded company. A rare find. What an amazing post.